"MOVEMENT FOR THE
RESTORATION OF THE TEN
COMMANDMENTS OF GOD"
A Christian doomsday cult in Uganda
Accurate information about this tragedy is simply not available, for
many reasons, including:
||The area is far off the beaten track for news gatherers.
||There are major cultural differences between reporters and local
||Relatively little past information about the group is known.
||Anti-cult groups have been superimposing their own beliefs, about
high-demand religious groups, on the tragedy.
||Local forensic resources appear inadequate to handle
The following represents our best guess at what really happened in
Uganda. We will modify the essay as new information becomes available.
At least 924 members of a
doomsday religious sect in Uganda have died. The number of bodies increases
daily and is expected to exceed 1,000 after the last compound belonging to
the destructive cult is examined:
||About 530 in an intentionally-set fire that gutted their
church in Kanungu, Uganda on Friday, 2000-MAR-17. Police have counted 330 skulls in the church;
however, some bodies had been converted to ash. Almost all were burned
beyond recognition. The
dead included at least 78 children. The precise number of the dead will never be
||In the days following the tragedy, police discovered five pit latrines
covered in fresh cement. One was opened. Public health officer Richard Opira
said: "we found five bodies on the surface and when we shone a torch
there were more underneath...They haven't been wounded so we think they were
strangled or maybe poisoned." By MAR-21, six bodies had been removed:
three had had their stomachs slit open; one had a crushed skull. Dr. Sam
Birungi explained: "Some were beaten, some were burned, some were
chemically poisoned then their bodies were dumped down in the pit."
||153 bodies were discovered in another compound
belonging to the religious group in nearby Buhunga.
were unearthed in a mass grave in a sugarcane field in Fr. Dominic Kataribabo's
estate at Rugazi. Some of the
latter had been stabbed; others had pieces of cloth wrapped tightly around
their throats. They appeared to have been dead for at least a month.
||Another 81 bodies,
including 44 children were discovered on the farm of lay leader Joseph
||A fifth compounds belonging to the religious group has not been investigated.
As of 2000-APR-3, the police are waiting until they had collected
proper equipment. They are asking for international aid in the form of
expert forensic pathologists.
Most of the deaths occurred in Kanungu, a small
trading center, about 217 miles (360 km) southwest of Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
individuals at the scene believe that the parishioners had committed suicide; others
say that the group leader, Joseph Kibweteere, murdered the members by luring
them inside the
church and then setting it on fire. The church's windows had been boarded-up; its
doors were nailed shut with the members inside. They sang for a few hours. One
witness said that they doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze. Some
witnesses reported the smell of gasoline
at the scene, an explosion that preceded the fire, and some screams from inside
the building. Jonathan Turyareeda, a police officer, said: "There were families inside, even
small children." Fox News reported that the sect's leaders included
three excommunicated priests and two excommunicated nuns. Some believe that
the leadership all died along with the general membership; others suspect that a
few of the leaders escaped. Some sources say that
the members wore white, green
and black robes. The Associated Press said that their women wore white
veils while men wore black, green or red shirts. 6
Before the tragedy, Kibweteere allegedly had said that he overheard a conversation between Jesus Christ
and the Virgin Mary. Mary had stated that the world would come to an end
unless humans started to follow the Ten Commandments closely. The group
initially believed that the end of the world would occur on
1999-DEC-31. During 1999, members had sold their
possessions, presumably in preparation for the end times when they would
be transported to heaven. They slaughtered cattle and had a
week-long feast. When the end did not come, Kibweteere changed the date to
2000-DEC-31. Later, he taught that the Virgin Mary would appear on MAR-17
and take the faithful to Heaven. Devastation would then descend upon the world and
the remaining 6 billion people in the world would be exterminated. They
believed that they would experience a life much like Adam and Eve enjoyed:
"no clothes, no cultivating, no work." 15 In
preparation of the event, members slaughtered
three bulls, and had a great
feast on the evening before the tragedy.
About the group:
||The movement was founded by excommunicated Roman Catholic priests: Joseph Kibweteere,
Joseph Kasapurari, John Kamagara and Dominic Kataribabo; two
excommunicated Roman Catholic nuns; and Credonia Mwerinde, an ex-prostitute.
||There are conflicting reports of the year in which the group was
founded. Some say it was 1989; others 1994. They were registered as a
non-governmental organization in 1994.
||Their school was shut down by the government in 1998 because of its
unsanitary conditions, their use of child labor and allegations of
kidnapping of children.
||Estimates of their membership before the murder/suicide, range from
235 to about 650.
||Most of the group's members were originally Roman Catholic.
However, the group taught that the Catholic Church was an enemy, badly
in need of reform. There own rules came from the Virgin Mary, as
channelled through Mwerinde.
||The leaders taught that the Ten Commandments needed to be restored
to their original importance.
||Medical care was discouraged.
||Members rarely spoke. They use mostly gestures to communicate, out
of fear of breaking the ninth commandment (eight commandment for Roman
Catholics and some Lutherans): "Thou
shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus
||The group is located in southwest Uganda -- one of the most unstable
areas of the world. Two separate programs of mass murder have been
conducted in the vicinity: in Rwanda 800,000 lost their lives. There
are estimates that under Idi Amin, as many as 500,000 Ugandans lost
their lives. A civil war currently rages in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo. A significant percent of the population has died or is
dying of AIDS.
||AOL has published excerpts from a handbook that was distributed by
the group. It is called: "A Timely Message from Heaven: The
End of the Present Time." 16
Was the tragedy mass murder or mass suicide?
There is general agreement about some events: The membership appears
to have anticipated being taken to Heaven by the Virgin Mary on MAR-17.
They expected the end of the world to occur at that time. They slaughtered a cow, and ordered 70 crates of soda for a feast on
MAR-16. They said goodbye to friends and relatives.
||Mass suicide: There is one initial report, never unconfirmed,
members had applied gasoline and paraffin to their skin before the
explosion and fire. However, it is difficult to see how the observer could have
witnessed these preparations if the windows and doors of the church were nailed
shut. If confirmed, this would be one indicator that the
deaths might have been the result of a mass suicide, similar to that
of Heaven's Gate. The police
investigation cast doubt on this sole witness; they found no signs of
paraffin having been used at the church. Most of the world media
initially emphasized the suicide theory. So did representatives
of the anti-cult
movement who are keen to promote their belief that mass suicide is
a logical outcome of cult activity. They accuse cults of brainwashing
their membership and reducing their will to act independently. Although their fundamental
beliefs have been widely discounted by mental health professionals,
the ACM has been quite successful in propagating their beliefs among
the press and the rest of the public.|
||Mass murder: There is a growing indication that the
tragedy was a mass murder, not a mass suicide:
||Several news sources reported that the doors of
the church were nailed shut from the inside. That might indicate that
the leadership wanted to confine the full membership within the church
in order to murder the entire group.
||The discovery of additional
bodies which had been murdered and buried in latrines near the church gives weight to the mass
||The discoveries of many hundreds of murder victims at other
locations also point towards mass murder.
||Leader Kibwetere appears to have planned the tragedy in advance.
He allegedly sent a letter to his wife before the tragedy,
encouraging her to continue the religion "because the
members of the cult were going to perish the next day.''
||The group's membership are almost entirely ex-Roman Catholic -- a
faith that strongly forbids suicide. Traditional belief also very strongly forbids suicide. Finally, local
belief is that if a person dies in a fire, that not only their
body is killed but their soul is as well. This is the reason why
evil sorcerers were once burned alive: so that they would be
completely annihilated. It is very unlikely that if a person in
this area wanted to commit suicide that they would choose death by
Regional police commander Setphen Okwalinga said:
"It's a criminal case; it's murder..." According to
the Associated Press on MAR-26, "Government officials
are treating movement leader Kibwetere as a fugitive and all the
deaths as murder." Yet media reports and even this AP article
still refer to the tragedy as a mass suicide. Some beliefs die hard.
A New York Times article reported that "The police
originally suspected mass suicide by more than 300 followers found
burned to death in a church in the town of Kanungu...But since then,
more bodies have been found, a number with unmistakable signs of
strangulation...Many [other] bodies have shown no sign of violence,
leading some investigators to suspect mass poisoning. Increasingly,
police are calling this an organized slaughter." 14
is a growing belief that the deaths were precipitated by failed
prophecy. When the end of the world did not occur on 1999-DEC-31, some
members of the sect demanded their money and possessions back. This,
in turn, may have triggered the mass murders.
According to the New
York Times on APR-4: "Uganda's vice president, Dr. Speciosa
Wandira Kazibwe, apologized for the government's failure to stop the
cult before the deaths..."These were callously,
well-orchestrated mass murders perpetrated by a network of diabolic,
malevolent criminals masquerading as religious people," she
Other violent religious groups in Uganda:
According to Massimo Introvigne of CESNUR, "Uganda is the home
of hundreds of religious movements, many of them apocalyptic and
millenarian. This is not surprising: Uganda experienced an apocalypse of
its own with the bloody regime of Idi Amin Dada and the atrocities of the
civil war. Apocalyptic movements in Uganda expect justice from the end of
the world, not from politics." 7
According to Reuters, "There is a history of fanatical religious
movements in Uganda." These include:
||The Holy Spirit Movement, "an extreme and violent Christian
cult," which formed in the late 1980s. "Many hundreds
of believers died in suicidal attacks, convinced that magic oil would
protect them from bullets of government troops." 4
||The Lord's Resistance Army succeeded the Holy Spirit
Movement. The are also a Christian group. Their goal is to run
Uganda on the basis of the biblical Ten
Commandments. They have kidnapped thousands of children to be used
as soldiers and sex slaves; they often commit atrocities against local
||Police in Uganda had disbanded another doomsday cult, World Message
Last Warning in 1999-SEP. Leaders have been charged with rape,
kidnapping, illegal confinement, and murder. 24 decomposing bodies were
found at their headquarters. Wilson Bushara organized the group in
1995. He apparently preached communal sex and multiple marriages; all
of the women in the group were considered to be his wives.
Did the group show some of the signs of other destructive cults?
Elsewhere on this web site, we have an essay "Common
signs of Destructive Cults." It provides a checklist of 11
factors shared by organizations
that have lost membership in the past through mass suicide or killing.
Although details concerning the Ugandan cult are still sketchy, they seem
to have matched most or all of the indicators of a destructive cult:
|The leader's preaching concentrates heavily on the
of the world,
|The group is expected to play a major, elite role
at the end time.
||Present. They would be the only survivors
at the end of the world.
|They are a small religious group, not an
|They are led by a single male charismatic leader.
|The leader dominates the membership, closely
||Present. Prayer, location, food was
|The group (or at least the core members) lives
together in an intentional community
||Present - members lived in a compound.
|Extreme paranoia within the group
||May have been present. Followers rarely
spoke out of fear of breaking a commandment by talking.
|Information and contacts from outside are severely
||Present. Members were isolated for all but
two or three months each year. They were often moved from one
compound to another.
|They believe that they are in danger, are being
closely monitored and heavily persecuted.
||Present. Members were told that Jesus and
the Virgin Mary were closely monitoring thm and would curse any
that deviated from strict behavior rules.
|The leadership assembles an impressive array of
guns, rifles, other murder weapons or weapons of mass
destruction. They may prepare defensive structures.
|They follow a form of Christian theology with
major and unique deviations from traditional beliefs in the area
of end-time prophecy
Reactions to the tragedy:
||2000-MAR-20: The Boston Herald newspaper quoted Steven Hassan,
a leader of the anti-cult movement (ACM). 10,11
The ACM has promoted the largely discredited concept that mind
control techniques are widely used in new religious groups to
psychologically abuse their members. He said that the Restoration
group likely used mind control to strip members of their ability to
think critically: "Most of them died willingly. But when you
think about mind control, it wasn't their own will, it was their cult
identity's will." Hassan apparently accepts the theory that
the cult members committed mass suicide and rejects the theory that
the cult members were killed.
||2000-MAR-20: Workers using bulldozers, buried hundreds of
charred bodies in a mass grave, along with the walls of their church.
||2000-MAR-21: The Roman Catholic hierarchy distanced itself
from the tragedy. The country's bishops said that the group's
excommunicated leaders had "erred and broke the discipline of
the church." The sect's members "were misled by
obsessed leaders into an obnoxious form of religiosity completely
rejected by the Catholic Church."
||2000-APR-1: The government called a day of prayer on Sunday
[APR-2] to ''console surviving relatives and assure the country
that action is being taken in pursuit of the criminal perpetrators''.
||2000-APR-3: Rumors have been circulating that two of the
leaders of the group had engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism.
They allegedly murdered an infant each week and drank its blood. [Author's
note: We suspect that this is an urban folk-tale. Fear of evil
sorcerers who dedicate their lives to harming and killing others is
well established in this area of the world.]
"Up to 230 members of doomsday sect killed un Uganda fire, police say,"
CNN.com, 2000-MAR-18 at: http://www.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/africa/03/18/
"Doomsday: Up to 230 dead in apparent mass suicide in Uganda,"
ABC News, 2000-MAR-18, at: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/DailyNews/
"At least 235 die in Uganda cult suicide," FoxNews.com,
2000-MAR-18, at: http://www.foxnews.com/world/031700/sat_suicide.sml
Gavin Pattison, "235 Doomsday believers perish by Uganda fire,"
Reuters, 2000-MAR-18, at: http://www.reuters.com/news/
L. Ochieng & W. Isabyirye, "Prophet sells tickets to heaven,"
2000-MAR-18, at: http://www.suntimes.co.za/1999/10/31/news/news25.htm
George Mwangi, "470 feared dead in Uganda cult horror,"
Massimo Ontrovigne, "Tragedy in Uganda: The Restoration of the Ten
Commandments of God, a Post-Catholic Movement," at: http://www.cesnur.org/testi/uganda_002.htm
CESNUR has collected together dozens of news reports on the tragedy at: http://www.cesnur.org/testi/uganda_updates.htm
"Uganda church distances itself from cultists: Ex-Catholic clergy
blamed in mass suicide." Associated Press - Reuters, 2000-MAR-21
J.M. Lawrence, "Uganda in shock after massive cult suicide,"
Boston Herald, 2000-MAR-20, at: http://www.bostonherald.com/bostonherald/intl/
Steven Hassan, "Combating cult mind control," Inner
Traditions Intl., (1990). You
can read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com
Steven Hassan, "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think
for Themselves,'' Aitan Publ., (2000), Read
reviews or order this book
Craig Nelson, "New find of bodies linked to Uganda cult,"
Associated Press, 2000-MAR-27.
"More bodies found crammed in pit at cult leader's house: Death
toll tops 600 as police focus on yet another mass grave," New York
Times, reprinted by The Toronto Star, 2000-MAR-30, Page A10.
Karl Vick, "Unearthing a nightmare: Doomsday cult leaders foretold
'rivers running red' -- but not ghastly mass murder." Washington
Post. Reprinted in the Toronto Star, 2000-APR-2, Page B4.
"Uganda Cult Handbook Excerpts," AOL.COM, at: http://my.aol.com/news/story.tmpl?
Copyright © 2000
Originally written: 2000-MAR-18
Latest update: 2000-APR-7
Author: B.A. Robinson